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Pearls and Pearlshell: Stunning exhibition features Australia's pearling heritage
The crew of a pearl lugger, Broome, c. 1900–20. Courtesy National Archives of Australia.

CANBERRA.- A rare 2,000 year-old pearl, a historic hard-hat diving helmet and examples of luminous carved pearlshell are among the beautiful objects that tell the story of the nation’s pearling industry in a new exhibition, Lustre: Pearling & Australia, on view at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

The result of a special partnership between the Western Australian Museum and Broome’s Yawuru Aboriginal corporation Nyamba Buru Yawuru, Lustre showcases the beauty, significance and intrigue of pearls and pearlshell across time and cultures.

Intertwining ancient Aboriginal trade stories with recent industry developments that have transformed Australia’s north, the exhibition features a rare and remarkable 2,000-year-old nearround natural pearl, recently found in an archaeological shell midden in WA’s Admiralty Gulf. National Museum of Australia Director, Dr Mathew Trinca, said he is delighted to bring this important travelling exhibition to Canberra and thanked the Western Australian Museum for the ongoing partnership.

“Lustre is both beautiful and historically important, exploring how Aboriginal people have valued and collected pearlshell for at least 20,000 years, and examining the modern industry which has developed around this highly prized resource,” said Dr Trinca.

WA Museum CEO Alec Coles said Lustre is an exhibition about pearling told largely from an Aboriginal perspective, and pays tribute to the skills of Asian, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander indentured workers, many of whom gave their lives to the industry.

“Lustre also investigates the biology of the pearl oyster and its environment as well as the devastating impact of cyclones on the industry. It tells the unique Australian story of the pearlshell and the pearls that they produce. It also explores the relationships between the people of pearling and the industry that emerged in Australia,” Mr Coles said.

Pearlshell remains highly valued among many Aboriginal communities and has been a vital element in long distance trade across northern Australia and into the desert for thousands of years.

The exhibition features beautiful examples of pearls and pearl jewellery; carved pearlshell and pearlshell cutlery; and diving equipment, including a historic hard-hat diving helmet.

The exhibition includes vibrant audiovisual material, and visitors can access personal stories on an audio tour through their own smart device.

Lustre was developed in close consultation with senior Yawuru, Karajarri, Bardi and Jawi, and Mayala elders from Saltwater Country in the West Kimberley, and is supported by the Visions of Australia regional touring program, a federal government initiative aiming to improve access to cultural material for all Australians.

Lustre: Pearling & Australia will be on display at the National Museum of Australia until 22 July 2018.

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